Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The chirper in the wall

In this sometimes bewildering environment, I appreciate the small successes more and more. I am thankful for the tiny kindnesses and interactions that make Cambodia beautiful. Even odd and mildly annoying surprises increase my affection for this place.

One such quirky event took place last night in my apartment. When Carrie and I sit in the living room and chat in the evening, a squeaking noise from the wall punctuates our conversation. The noise is not quite a gecko chirp but not exactly a bird twirp. Dubbed, "the chirper in the wall," the rustling, talkative creature seemed to be voicing its opinion. I thought it was a bat, Carrie guessed a mouse or bird.

So last night, Carrie was making delicious soup and Mel came over for dinner. As I grabbed my keys to unlock the orange gate for her, I looked back toward the kitchen and saw something dart in through the open window (we don't have screens). It was a mouse with the longest tail I have ever seen! It scurried over to the kitchen and helped itself to the water in one of our ant traps (plastic bowls of water under the legs of the cabinet to keep ants out of food).

I gasped and pointed out the bold invader to Carrie, who sighed and reached for a broom. After letting Mel in and warning her of the drama in the kitchen, I picked up my camera to record the saga. Carrie, broom in one hand, large green bowl in the other, was trying to coax the mouse out from behind the cabinet where it had hidden. However, Carrie's efforts were only amounting to her petting the mouse with the broom. I began snapping away until Carrie, flustered by the clever mouse, pled, "This is not a documentary!" and handed me the broom. By then the alleged chirper lay rather floppily on the floor, perhaps playing dead or perhaps crippled by the broom.

With broom and feather duster, we scooped the mouse into the bowl. Carrie bravely carried the mouse to the back deck and unceremoniously dumped it into the concrete backyard. We all felt a little sorry for the chirper, who may have become perished in the fall or scampered away to drink from our ant traps another day. However, the chirping in the wall continues. Perhaps the chirper left a family behind or perhaps it is another pest entirely.

I realize this rather long story may not exactly be inspirational to readers. But in some weird way, it reminds me of adventures to be had. When I think about the adventure of living in Cambodia, this Mark Twain quote comes to mind.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I doubt Mark Twain had catching mice along with the trade winds in mind. But I think it is a reminder that despite the possibilities of pain and loss, taking the risk rewards us in the end. Even in little ways, like the comical chatter or the chirper in the wall.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Greetings from a skyscraper less city

Today, if all goes well, I move out of the Golden Gate Hotel and into my home in Phnom Penh. Hopefully, but doubtful, the rain will be merciful and light while I move.

I know the observations (and generalizations) I will make have been made by many before me. Though my impressions may be unoriginal, I remember all the people I met in churches who said they wished they could see it here and wanted to know what it’s like, what people eat, how they travel. So I will share what I see, recognizing that my view is tinted by my biases, upbringing, education and countless other factors. This is my disclaimer.


Phnom Penh is a world apart from my fuzzy memories of my visit three years ago. The streets are choked with glossy new cars wearing large stickers proclaiming, “Land Cruiser” or “Lexus” lumbering along side motorbikes and tuk tusk. Huge mansions sit behind high walls and coils of razor wire. A handful of supermarkets and western style grocery stores have sprung up, though only the rich and the expat can afford to frequent them. A new gym opens up near Independence Monument and charges over a hundred dollars a month. A skyscraper less city will soon be home to “Golden Tower 42,” a high rise boasting a mall, pool, gym and apartments built by a Korean firm.

Amongst all the building and money, many struggle. Inflation and low wages has driven thousands women to seek jobs outside the garment industry. Street children run together in the rain without shoes, pulling their paper thin shirts over their heads, exposing paper thin bodies. A development firm purchased Boeung Kak, the largest lake in Phnom Penh, and is filling it with sand, driving hundreds of people from their homes and livelihoods. Profit and investment have not flowed equal in the city or out into the country side.

This is what I observe from the surface of the city, from the newspapers and the sights. For now I can only imagine the hundreds of stories, influences and players beneath it.


As I mentioned before, I am in a period of constant readjustment. After ten days in the “safety” of an air conditioned, internet and cable supplied hotel, it is time to really move to Phnom Penh. My new home is at traditional wooden house located in a Khmer neighborhood. Carrie, my fabulous roommate, is a Mennonite volunteer handicraft designer and business advisor who has lived in Phnom Penh for a year. Carrie is my favorite part of this new living arrangement, followed by the lovely apartment itself and the two fluffy, wiggling puppies of the landlords. The hole in the ceiling and the lack of screens in the windows are less than exciting, but as my new friend Chris assured me today, there isn’t a house here without something quirky to it.

The first week here was the hardest of my life for sure. However, the Lutheran World Federation Office here is full of wonderful people I look forward to knowing better as the year progresses. The world of the expatriate is alien and amazing to this woman from Idaho Falls. I am endlessly grateful for all the support and advice I have been blessed with from family, friends and strangers. Until next time, you are all in my heart and prayers.